The Spanish Inquisition in Reality and Myth

Much of the sinister reputation of the Spanish Inquisition, promoted even in major motion pictures, is undeserved. Oxford University lecturer Reginald Trevor Davies, a specialist of Spanish history, confirms this in an article published in the 1957 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (vol. 21, pp. 121-122). Explaining how the historical truth has been distorted, he writes:

The Spanish church was wealthy and powerful because the people were intensely religious and because it was largely a national institution in which no foreigner might hold office and in which the crown was supreme ... It was, consequently, a fact of serious political importance that during the anarchy of Henry IV's reign (1454-75) the Jews gained great power and influence. They might compel -- sometimes by means of their usury -- their debtors to renounce the Christian religion; and Marranos (baptized Jews) often preserved the old religious faith in secret ...

The familiars of the Inquisition, exercising ceaseless vigilance in the remotest corners of Spain, may be fittingly compared with the justices of the peace who did so much to uphold the throne of Tudor England ...

It cannot be denied that the Inquisition was guilty of abuses and cruelties in the course of its long history, but it was no more unjust or inhumane than most other courts of the Europe of its day. The traditional exaggerations about it were derived from the works of Juan Antonio Llorente (1756-1823), 19th century liberals and a number of historical novelists and dramatists ...

Llorente's Histoire critique de I'inquisition d’Espagne, 4 vols. (Paris, 1817-18) was widely used by anti-Catholic propagandists and translated into several languages. The author's life was such that his work may well be supposed to be extremely tendentious; he wrote to please those who happened to be in power. He used many documents taken from the archives of the Inquisition but carefully selected them to support the case he wished to advocate.
 

Edward Peters, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Pennsylvania, has detailed the development and impact of the Inquisition as historical myth. In his book Inquisition, published in 1988 by the Free Press (pp. 1, 2, 231, 263, 308) he writes:

Between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries in western Europe, the Latin Christian Church adapted certain elements of Roman legal procedure and charged papally appointed clergy to employ them in order to preserve orthodox religious beliefs from the attacks of heretics ... Between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries ... these procedures, personnel and institutions were transformed by polemic and fiction into myth, the myth of The Inquisition. The institutions and the myth lived -- and developed – in western Europe and the New World until the early nineteenth century, when most of the inquisitions were abolished, and the myth itself was universalized ...

Although the inquisitions disappeared, The Inquisition did not. The myth was originally devised to serve variously the political purposes of a number of early modern political regimes, as well as Protestant Reformers, proponents of religious and civil toleration, philosophical enemies of the civil power of organized religions, and progressive modernists; but the myth remained durable, widely adaptable, and useful, so that in time it came to be woven tightly into the fabric of modern consciousness. So tight is its place in that weave that the myth has been revived in the twentieth century ...

Some myths are tougher and more durable than the occasions which first create and employ them. The Inquisition [as myth] was an invention of the religious disputes and political conflicts of the sixteenth century. It was adapted to the causes of religious toleration and philosophical and political enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this process, although it was always anti-Catholic and usually anti-Spanish, it tended to become universalized, until, by the end of the eighteenth century, it had become the representative of all repressive religions that opposed freedom of conscience, political liberty and philosophical enlightenment.

In the United States, far more than in Europe, The Inquisition remained an evil abstraction, sustained by anti-Catholicism and supported by political opposition.


From The Journal of Historical Review, Jan.- Feb. 1996 (Vol. 16, No. 1), pages 8-9.